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HR: Are You Ready for the Workplace of 2009?

HR has a big role to play in helping their employers weather a downturn. But HR professionals may need to adapt to the new demands of the workplace. They should take the initiative and start talking to senior executives in a language they will understand, says Dr John Sullivan in a commentary for

Businesses that need to tighten their belts will be shifting their focus to the shorter term and may put grander, long-term growth plans on the backburner.

Priorities will be more immediate -- and will centre around workforce productivity, flexibility and planning.

Here are some of tips for getting HR into a more strategy-driven mindset:

  • Focus on productivity Focus on your goal as HR professionals -- to raise productivity by providing advice and training to help people become effective at work.
    Sullivan even proposes changing the departmental name from HR or personnel (does anyone use this anymore?) to "workforce productivity".
    Develop metrics that measure productivity -- the ratio of employee-related costs to output.
    Identify any barriers to productivity and make sure managers have the proper training and advice to improve quickly.
  • Increase employee innovation This is an opportunity for HR to act in a consultancy capacity and show its worth in an area its often left out of -- innovation in products and services. Put together a special group to work with key innovators, identifying obstacles to innovation and overcoming them with training and advice.
  • Increase workforce flexibility As headcount comes down in many companies, HR is in a strong position to know how to re-deploy employees to where they will have the most impact, and can ensure there's a supply of contingent talent. Advertising and communications group WPP keeps a percentage of its workforce on temporary contracts in order to ensure it flexibility in a downturn. (It has the added bonus of bringing fresh eyes and new ideas to projects.)
    Shift your focus from recruiting to developing talent -- a silver lining for layoff survivors, who can broaden their skills.
  • Associate metrics with money Your boss will want to see evidence that costs have gone down while revenue's risen. That means understanding how to translate your financial reporting into a form that most directly translates into relevant financial facts.
    Sullivan's example: instead of simply reporting your turnover rate is six per cent, also explain that the cost of that turnover was £12.2m in lost productivity or revenue.
    Another silver lining: HR can demonstrate the "hidden" costs of cutting the training budget too drastically.
  • Plan for recovery This, too, shall pass -- and the company will need to keep an eye on the horizon in anticipation of an upturn in the economy.
    "To weather the storm in a truly strategic fashion, HR must increase its workforce planning capability so the organisation can explode out of the starting blocks when the economy swings back." Keep building your image as an employer of choice, help managers cope with the fluctuations and focus on keeping your top talent.
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